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Manhattan Project -- The Day After

October 13, 2006 |  6:09 pm

More fallout (get it?!) from the announcement yesterday that the newspaper you are reading has formed a curiously named blue-ribbon panel of executives and reporters to figure out what big ideas will bring readers back, instead of sending them screaming for the exits. Ex-Timesman (there sure are a lot of those!) Kevin Roderick offers some unusually (for him) lengthy criticism:

Why the editor at a struggling major property like the Los Angeles Times isn't already fluent on all of these issues — and why the business side hasn't already examined every possible revenue angle — are just two of the big questions raised by such an abrupt and public declaration of an emergency. [...]

I can't remember a single big newsroom committee that ever truly delivered the goods, even those I sat on, and this one has a tall order. Three reporters not noted for their media savvy or future vision — nothing personal, it's just not in their job descriptions or their resumes — are being asked to come up with solutions that elude even the most thoughtful media thinkers — essentially, the secret to saving newspapers. Good luck with that, guys. Perhaps a more useful idea would have been to convene a panel of Los Angeles thinkers, creative types and ordinary people and ask them how they want their news. Really ask them, and listen to the painful answers.

Which brings me to the effort's opening gaffe — using World War II imagery and calling it the Manhattan Project in the pages of the New York Times. Besides looking silly claiming an extreme level of urgency and commitment of high talent, it opens up the L.A. Times to mockery on so many levels.

Mack Reed (who used to work for ... the L.A. Times!) provides a five-point plan:

1. Walk away from Pulitzers for a year. Recall all the staffers you've given 6-8 months to cover long, thumb-sucking, big-splash award-bait and reassign them to investigating the biggest, hairiest story in L.A.'s five or six most complex neighborhoods. Give them three-week deadlines. Do this right, and you'll turn up Pulitzer fodder right in your own back yard and win new and dedicated readers.

2. Cover Hollywood for a change. Act like private investigators, not junket-riding critics. Dig for stories on the way money, influence and Machiavellian venom ruin people's lives. Write about the grinding machinery, about the PAs and grips and casting-couch pimps. Ignore the howls of the publicists you've coddled and kissed up to for so long. Screw "access." Cover the industry like it's the most important socio-economic engine in Los Angeles, not some faaabulous passing carnival that you're privileged to watch from the curb.

3. Shift at least two or three "national" correspondents back to Los Angeles Get them to work on covering social and personal issues in your own city as intensely as they've been covering minor personal tragedies in the Midwest or deep South. Everywhere you turn right now, you should be hearing how everyone is screaming, "COVER LOS ANGELES!" Listen to them.

Longtime newspaper online strategist Steve Yelvington:

I've only been to the Los Angeles Times once. It felt like a big, dark, cavernous chunk of the past, stranded in a strange new world. My experience was very odd. I was there to speak at an IFRA Newsplex "convergence road show" sponsored in part by the Times. I had just done a similar gig at Florida Today to a fairly packed room. But in Los Angeles, no one showed up. No one. Had they already figured out the future, and decided not to talk about it any more? Martha Stone and I sat around and chatted awhile, ate some Los Angeles Times pastries, drank some Los Angeles Times coffee, then left. I looked over some museum pieces in the lobby on my way out.

Most of my impressions of the Times were formed in my decades as an editor, and especially from the LAT-WP wire. It's long been a reporter's newspaper, a place where there was plenty of space and freedom and resources to go out and do serious, long-term, long-form journalism.

Such institutions are good for society. But it seems the Los Angeles Times today is "caught between two worlds" in many dimensions. It's not a failure (it is, in fact, making tons of money) but is being flogged by the investment marketplace. It is too big to be a local newspaper, but rather seems to be a regionally distributed national newspaper, which makes no sense at all. It is an artifact of the 20th century protruding uncomfortably into the 21st. [...]

In a general sense, I applaud any effort by a newsroom to critically examine the current media landscape and the relationship between reporting and audience; it certainly beats living by assumptions derived from a bygone era. But it seems likely that the effort will be all about preservation and not about creation.

So, having stated the obvious, where do I really land on this issue? What would I do with the Los Angeles Times? I sight, shake my head, and say I'm not sure. But I don't think it can sit forever between local and national. And I am reminded that the real Manhattan Project ended in blowing things up, and Oppenheimer quoting Hindu scripture: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Local prosecutor Patrick "Patterico" Frey:

If I could give the paper only one piece of advice, it would be this: expand the web site. Open up every single story to comments and trackbacks, just like a blog post. For a paper that claims to be looking for ways to “re-engag[e]the reader,” this is a no-brainer.

The Web and interactivity are the future. Stop fighting it and embrace it.

Fishbowl LA's Kate Coe was initially sarcastic....

What a fantastic idea! Instead of having these guys go out and report the news that would drive readers to pick up the paper every morning, squirrel these guys away in a conference room and have them spend months wondering what they should be doing instead. Eventually, we hope, they'll get it.

... but then she suggested the paper start "a real gossip column," and declared herself "ready to serve."

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